TESTING … TESTING ….DOES IT WORK?
Australian journalist Leo Cameron has just returned from Los Angeles, where he saw first
hand how the studios like to test their movies on audiences before making a ‘final
cut’ – and what some of the directors think of the process.
Along with press junkets and stars' promotional tours, test screenings - whereby new
films are secretly previewed, usually months before their scheduled release date, to a
sample audience - have been a Hollywood fixture for over fifty years.
In the early days it was a decidedly informal practice. The studio would simply sneak a
new film, unannounced, into a local theatre and the director would sit in on the screening
to see how various scenes played. Rumour has it that Alfred Hitchcock had a ball listening
to the audience scream when he tested Psycho back in 1960.
"dreaded sample audience"
Today a studio wouldn't dream of releasing a film that hasn't been put through the test
screening mill. The director may well believe he has a masterpiece on his hands, but the
final ruling lies with that dreaded sample audience. And once the verdict is in, that
'masterpiece' will usually undergo anything from a cosmetic to a major makeover. Scenes
will shortened, lengthened or cut, sub-plots clarified or dropped and the music rescored.
Sometimes, as was the case with Fatal Attraction, the cast and crew will be recalled to
shoot a new ending.
Test screenings are held in various suburban multiplexes usually in the greater Los
Angeles area. They are co-ordinated by the National Research Group. For about US$25,000
the company will organise the venue, recruit the appropriate audience and collate that
audience's comments into the statistics the studio requires.
The sample audience is recruited either by phone using a data base of people who have
attended similar screenings in the past, or by handing out invitations in the street on
the day of the screening itself. Immediately after the screening, audience members are
asked to fill out an exhaustive, mainly multiple choice questionnaire. Sometimes a small
'focus group' will be invited to stay longer to discuss the film with the director and
other studio personnel.
Many directors find test screenings invaluable and will often test their films up to
six times just to get that fine-tuning right. Others believe the process serves no useful
purpose and simply inhibits their creativity. Case in point: director James Gray completed
work on The Yards, a compelling urban drama featuring a stand-out performance from Mark
Wahlberg, back in September of 1998. After it tested poorly, Miramax asked Gray to cut a
whopping 30 minutes from the film's two hour-plus running time. When the new version
tested even worse, Gray found himself back in the editing room with a major dilemma.
"writing on the wall"
A year later Miramax finally released the film in key markets only to watch it sink
with barely a ripple. The studio says it was not surprised by the result because the test
screenings had put the writing on the wall from day one. Gray, on the other hand, claims
that the tests and the protracted tinkering they engendered, coupled with Miramax's
half-hearted advertising campaign, effectively sealed his film's fate before it even left
the starting block.
Though they are usually contractually obligated to test their films, prominent
directors like Oliver Stone, John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack are sympathetic to
Gray's situation. The way Frankenheimer sees it, the whole test screening process is so
nebulous that a director can always be forced to make studio-sanctioned changes to his
film because the studio is in a position to manipulate or reinterpret test results to
support its point of view. Any director crazy enough to keep questioning that point of
view runs the very real risk of seeing his film do a two-week engagement somewhere in
Texas then wheeled off into video obscurity.
"input is worth far less"
Some producers dismiss test screenings on the grounds that they seldom tell them
anything that they don't already know. Audiences enjoy putting in their ten cents' worth,
they say, but most of the time that input is worth far less. At a test screening of the
awful Proof of Life last September (2000) comments about Meg Ryan's hair and her
ever-changing wardrobe often took precedence over those that targeted the film's hackneyed
structure and narrative contrivances.
On a lighter note, if test screenings can be manipulated, then the first suspect to be
interviewed should probably be the so-called 'professional tester'. Essentially the
description refers to a seventeen to twenty five year old film geek who spends his waking
hours sitting either in a movie theatre watching the latest release, or in front of a
computer surfing every movie web site the Internet has to offer. Most importantly, he is a
member of a sophisticated underground network of film buffs who have devoted their lives
to seeking out and attending as many secret studio test screenings as they can.
"posted on the web"
Though film writers are openly discouraged from attending test screenings because early
reviews can prove to be damaging, the professional tester will have a review of the film
posted on the web faster than it takes the projectionist to rewind the print.
To some the practice constitutes freedom of information; to others, like the producers
of End Of Days, who maintain that premature amateur reviews of their unfinished film dealt
it an unfair death blow, it's something that needs legislating against. But to ban early
reviews they would have to ban test screenings first. Judging by way studios have become
virtual junkies to the practice (Fox even tested Cast Away's trailer, for goodness sake),
that's something which is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.
For the moment, the only filmmakers who need not worry about test screenings are the
ones toiling on the indie circuit. They've got better things to do with their money. Like
buying more film stock. If one of those L.A. "focus groups" ever infiltrates
them, the industry will really be in trouble. Oh, there's one other guy who doesn't allow
his films to be test screened, and so far, strangely enough the studios don't have any
plans to force him to do so. His name is Steven Spielberg. Enough said.
Published April 26, 2001